Sunday, August 24, 2008

Defending a virtue under fire: Humanae Vitae


Defending a virtue under fire
In this abridged version of her classic essay Elizabeth Anscombe explains why she supports Humanae Vitae

With the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae being marked by many negative assessments we publish the following appreciative article by the late Elizabeth Anscombe, who is widely regarded as one of the leading philosophers of the 20th century. It is an edited version of a talk delivered in 1978 to an international conference at the University of Melbourne. The full version of this essay, along with 24 others, is published this month as Faith in a Hard Ground: Essays on Religion, Philosophy and Ethics by G E M Anscombe edited by Mary Geach and Luke Gormally (St Andrews Studies, Imprint Academic).

I first read Humanae Vitae, of course, when it came out. At that time everyone, including myself, homed in almost exclusively on the declaration about contraception. Not just the fact of the condemnation interested me. I had indeed feared there was going to be a silent slide, traditional teaching getting abandoned by default; but if there was going to be a pronouncement at all, I was confident that it would condemn contraceptive intercourse. But the precise formulation of the condemnation interested me intensely.

The invention of the contraceptive pill had in a way put moral theologians in a difficulty and it often led to the collapse of their former views. Suppose that sort of pill were prescribed for something else bona fide (for endometriosis, say: I have known it be prescribed for that), it wouldn't have been thought wrong to use the period of infertility that it gave. So where was the wrong?

It became clear that it lay in the aspect of intention. But here again people felt an immediate difficulty because they had not thought enough about intention. The intention, they said at once, was to have intercourse without getting a child. But that intention had long been declared possibly acceptable [see, for example, Pope Pius XII's Allocution to Italian Midwives on October 29 1951. which Anscombe probably had in mind].

As a professional philosopher, and quite independently of this subject, I had for a long time been very much interested in intention - so interested, indeed, that I wrote a book, Intention, simply about it in 1956. This interest had helped me to concentrate on the aspect of intention in thinking about contraception and the "rhythm" method of birth control.

Suppose a couple's situation to be one in which it is right and honest to have intercourse but avoid conception. This goal, that there be intercourse but no conception is an intention (a further intention) with which the act is performed, and in the case in hand it is common to two different couples whom we'll imagine: one couple use contraceptives, the other infertile times. The goal we have mentioned makes no difference between them, and we are assuming their situation to be one in which it deserves no reproach. But the act of the contraceptive pair has a different character from the act of the other pair.

For one of the descriptions true of their act is: that it is an act of sexual intercourse deliberately rendered infertile (if it should by chance be fertile otherwise). And this is the immediate significant difference between them and the other pair. For the other pair are performing an act of the generative kind - what the Pope calls an act with procreative significance - nothing having been done to change it from that. Now the difference in these characters of the intentional acts, between their intentions at this level, is a difference between wrong and right.

This point, about the identity of goal, but difference in character of the act of intercourse, was made very clear in paragraph 16 of Humanae Vitae. The translation we have is bad. It should run: "It is true in the two cases the couples are alike in meaning to avoid children for acceptable reasons." But it goes on, "in the former case they make legitimate use of a natural disposition".

When considering an action you need to know whether your goal in doing it is all right, but also whether the act itself is all right, and the former might be all right while the latter was not. This point about intention, which is put so clearly, was the first thing I observed at that time of first reading. The second was the Pope's exhortation to get more knowledge. This I found truly instructive. (The other only confirmed what was already clear to me.

I have only recently re-read the encyclical. Originally those were the two things I saw in it. An encyclical is always full of proper sentiments, generally edifying material together with repetition of familiar points of doctrine. All this I thought of as the "blurb" surrounding the hard definite stuff, and I fear I didn't pay much attention to it. Re-reading it, I find I misjudged it: there is very much material for reflection in it.

First, there is the opening, with its observations on the changes in the world and the new questions that have arisen. Second, there is note taken of the change "in the manner of considering the person of a woman and her place in society, and in the value to be attributed to conjugal love in marriage, and also in the judgment of the meaning of conjugal acts in relation to that love" (Humanae Vitae, §2).

That paragraph could receive a lot of expansion and reflection. Note that it contains no nostalgia for the past, no lamenting in favour of times when women were thought of as obviously not equal citizens, not suitable witnesses in a law court, for example (as St Thomas remarks somewhere) - let alone judges etc. We are familiar with a kind of nostalgia about former times "when women were women". But no such note is struck here.

Pope Paul himself has done much in this encyclical to contribute to the "appreciation of the relation of conjugal acts to married love". The principal way has been by his speaking of the "significance" of such acts. He has taught that conjugal acts have a "procreative significance" and a "unitive significance" which cannot be separated from one another.

Make no mistake: it is the whole Catholic Christian idea of chastity that is under fire in the modern world. It is also under fire from those Catholics who reject Humanae Vitae. I used to think you could argue, sufficiently to convince a Catholic, that no sort of sexual acts could be excluded if once you admitted contraceptive intercourse. But the enemies of Humanae Vitae seem now to embrace that conclusion.

Not indeed without any restriction, but at least as far as concerns sexual activity between two people; I suppose adult people. For though I know Catholics who solemnly defend and commend homosexual activity, I don't know any who make propaganda for bestiality, group sex or paedophilia. No doubt, however, all that will come as the world at large becomes accepting of these things.

Therefore we need to think very hard about this "unitive significance" of which Humanae Vitae treated. That the unitiveness has to do with marriage, gets its character from marriage, is clear. But more needs to be said about it in order to present the strong and shining virtue of chastity as understood by the Catholic Church. I can't say more about this here. It is a programme for thought.

Briefly, I will end by pointing to its connection with human dignity, the idea of which is a popular one, pro tem, nowadays. But there are two pictures of it. That of the Church, and of the world. In the world's picture, however, human beings can more and more be killed so that others can have the life they think they want: human dignity is not a fact to make you behave with reverence before any human life, but rather a standard which it is demanded life should reach. And the dignity and honour of human sexuality rightly conducted equally does not enter into the world's picture of human dignity: this is not, for the world, the place to set up a standard.

Then the world and the Church are precisely opposite in their tendency. The Church makes no requirement of a standard before it reverences human life, and sets up a standard to which we must conform in our sexuality if we are to use it to reflect and not blaspheme the dignity of human nature. But the world will set up standards, partly standards of satisfaction not meeting which human life doesn't deserve to be respected; while it reveres sexuality unmeasured by standards, as we do life. Catholic Herald, London

Faith in a Hard Ground: Essays on Religion, Philosophy and Ethics by G E M Anscombe is published in the series St Andrews Studies in Philosophy and Public Affairs. Readers of The Catholic Herald can obtain this at 20 per cent discount and post free (in UK) £14.50. To order call 01392 841600, or e-mail A previous collection of Anscombe's essays, Human Life, Action and Ethics, was published in 2005 and is available for the same discount

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